Where most nations have long since banned asbestos, the United States is a curious outlier. While it was among the first countries to recognise the dangers of asbestos exposure – and regulate its use – the substance is still imported and used in a number of different industries.
Finally, it looks like this may be coming to an end. The country’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced its intention to instigate a full ban on asbestos, to loudobjections from some of the businesses who still rely on it. Here’s a rundown of why asbestos isn’t banned in America, what the EPA is proposing, and how likely it is to stick.
Why asbestos is still used in the United States
The use of asbestos has been severely limited for decades across most of the world, following incontrovertible evidence of the harm it causes at any level of exposure. The different types of asbestos (distinguished by their colours) were progressively banned from use and sale, with the total ban coming into effect in most nations in the late 1990s.
The United States was one of the earlier nations to regulate the use of asbestos, and mandate safe allowable limits of asbestos fibres, as well as safety measures for employees working with the substance. Asbestos laws were key in the early days of its founding, along with environmental protections such as water quality and air pollution.
While things started well, getting rid of asbestos entirely proved tricky. Corporate interests lobbied against a total ban on asbestos, even as its dangers became more publicly known. Following growing scientific consensus and disasters such as the Libby vermiculite mine, the EPA instigated a full ban on asbestos in 1989. However, a court decision in 1991 cited a lack of evidence and harmful effects on trade, forcing the EPA to backtrack.
While asbestos in buildings is less of an issue today than in countries such as the UK, where it was heavily used in post-War reconstruction, it remains in use in limited industrial capacities. These include the production of chemicals (e.g. chlorine) and of car parts such as brake pads and gaskets, where its heat resistant properties are still considered invaluable. With imports from Canada having ended since its last mines closed in 2012, the US now imports chrysotile (white) asbestos from Russia, the only kind still mandated for use.
What the EPA’s asbestos ban will look like
What the EPA is proposing is nothing less than a total ban on chrysotile asbestos use. The import, manufacture, processing, distribution, or commercial use of asbestos would be banned for the remaining legal product types: asbestos diaphragms, sheet gaskets, oilfield brake blocks, aftermarket automotive brakes and linings, other vehicle friction products, and other gaskets.
Diaphragms and sheet gaskets will be banned from commercial use two years after the rule comes into place, while the other products will be banned after 180 days. The aim here is to phase out the most common and significant uses of asbestos, while banning those that do more harm to people more quickly. Asbestos diaphragms are used in some water filtration plants, but most of these are already being phased out for safer alternatives.
The EPA is also looking to increase standards around asbestos record-keeping and disposal. While other aspects of environmental protection have become more rigorous in recent years, asbestos regulations have lagged behind. The EPA intends to institute tighter rules for tracking and removing asbestos in line with established OSHA and NESHAP guidance.
Finally, the EPA is exploring legacy uses of asbestos and its disposal, as well as the presence of asbestos in talc and talc-containing products. With ongoing lawsuits against talcum powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, this remains a hot-button issue, and the EPA does not expect to produce its final risk evaluation until winter 2023, likely after that dispute has been resolved.
Why the ban is a big deal
Not so long ago, it looked like the exact opposite to an asbestos ban would be happening. Under President Trump, the EPA took a direction that seemed at odds with its fundamental purpose: protecting the environment. As well as approving things like oil pipelines and attempting to lower water and air quality standards, the EPA under Scott Pruitt was planning to allow new uses of asbestos in the United States for the first time in decades.
The election of President Biden has seen a broad reversal in this trend, and a turn back towards the EPA’s usual mandate. More than this, however, it reflects the empowerment of both the EPA and the environmental lobby in general. The allowed uses of asbestos have stood for so long largely because corporate interests have lobbied for it to remain legal. The EPA has either been defanged or at the mercy of Congress, and has previously been unable to fight this.
This new EPA proposal represents a positive shift towards tangible action on environmental issues, particularly environmental pollution. It demonstrates not only a willingness that has long existed to protect people and the environment, but also the ability to act on it. This ban will doubtless save hundreds of lives, but it also demonstrates the EPA’s increasing mandate to take action against individuals and businesses who are contributing to harmful pollution.
The ban on asbestos also augurs well for the rest of the world. Other countries that continue to use asbestos have often pointed to the US as a justification for their practices. With the US finally ending asbestos use, there will be less of a global market for it, and more pressure on those countries still using it. A UN resolution or international treaty could see it phased out altogether, and greater efforts to safely control and dispose of it.
The EPA’s proposed ban on asbestos use in the United States is not before time, but it is a positive development nonetheless. As well as saving lives in the US, it should also contribute to the decreasing viability of the international asbestos trade – and move us closer to a complete global ban on asbestos use for all applications.